As the snow begins to fall in the Upper Peninsula, the NMU men’s and women’s Nordic ski teams get out their skinny skis and wax. Expectations are high after the 2008-09 season, which saw NMU win both the male and female regional titles. Despite having set such a lofty precedent last year, head coach Sten Fjeldheim is confident his team will be able to repeat.
“If everybody’s healthy, my prediction is that [the men are] going to be the ones that everybody else has got to try to beat for regionals,” he said. “Same holds true for the women’s team.”
Two significant departures from the men’s team are Phil Violett and Justin Singleton. They were two of NMU’s leaders at last year’s regional meet, taking fifth and sixth respectively in the skate race and third and fifth respectively in classic.
Another top performer from last year, Martin Banerud, will not be competing this year, opting to redshirt the season and compete again in 2011. He will still train with the team.
Fjeldheim believes their losses will be felt, but is still optimistic about his men’s squad.
“It’s going to be an interesting year, basically, we lost two solid skiers,” Fjeldheim said. “Essentially what we’re going to have this year is very young men’s team, but at the same time we brought in a couple very good recruits,” he said.
Among the top new prospects is George Cartwright, a freshman from Landry, Wyo. Cartwright is a former Junior Olympic champion and was a member of last year’s U.S. team at the Junior World Championships.
“George has really held his own in dry land and is looking really strong,” Fjeldheim said, noting that another freshman, Chris Bowler, has also shown potential. “Chris has been one of our top guys in most of our rollerski time trials, and he’s looking really strong.”
One of the few returning seniors is Tim Cook, who narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAA competition last season. Fjeldheim named Cook one of the men’s team captains this year, and believes he will be able to make an impact on the race course and around the practice room.
“Tim is looking better than he ever has right now, I’m really glad we did redshirt him one year,” Fjeldheim said. “Tim is right now seriously pushing the pace with all the guys on the team. I’d say Tim is going to be leading the men’s team.”
Cook is looking to qualify for the national race and keep the team’s level of performance high. He believes that the NMU men will field another quality squad this year.
“Losing Justin and Phil are probably the biggest detractors this season, but I think we’re really solid and everyone looks strong and we’re all getting better and improving,” Cook said.
The women’s squad returns all three of last season’s national meet qualifiers in Laura DeWitt, Ingrid Fjeldheim and Marie-Helen Soderman. Fjeldheim believes their experience will help guide the team in the right direction.
“The sport of cross country skiing has a ton of unpredictable variables. Since we have a more veteran women’s team . that makes things a little bit easier as you’ve got women on the team who have experience with changing conditions, which lots of times can affect the outcome of the race,” he said.
DeWitt was selected as one captain for the female squad, after turning in a 17th place finish at last year’s NCAA classic race. She believes a strong dynamic among the team will be one of their keys to success.
“We get along really well as a group, and there’s no one that really thinks they’re above anyone else, so we mesh really well and hopefully we can use that to our advantage,” she said. She also noted that in addition to pushing the team to repeat as Regional champions, she would like to improve on her own finish from the national meet last year.
Supporting the veterans are newcomers Kirsten Fjeldheim, Karmen Whitham, Elizabeth Ellis, Molly Burger and Monica Markvardsen. Markvardsen was last year’s Junior Olympic champion. The freshmen will add depth to the women’s team that Fjeldheim believes will be a great asset.
“We have 13 women on the team and each and every one of them is trained well and ready to go,” he said. The men will not benefit from the same depth, but Fjeldheim is not concerned. “I think the guys are still going to be very, very competititve. We don’t have a lot of depth as far as a lot of numbers on the men’s team, but what we have is really good quality.”
The Wildcats are scheduled to begin formal competition on Dec. 5 with the NMU Open, but a lack of snowfall could present potential problems.
After that, they travel to Houghton for the MTU Open on Dec. 12.